Strategically Hijacking Victimhood: A Political Communication Strategy in the Discourse of Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump

Jessie Barton Hronešová, Daniel Kreiss

Perspectives on Politics

Political Processes

(Research Summary by Katherine Furl) 

While what constitutes “victimhood” status has been long-debated, claims to victimhood are leveraged by a wide variety of actors to politically meaningful ends—and the inherent morality we tend to attach to victims we consider legitimate makes this a useful political strategy for many.  In “Strategically Hijacking Victimhood: A Political Communication Strategy in the Discourse of Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump,” recently published in Perspectives on Politics, Jessie Barton Hronešová and Daniel Kreiss introduce the concept of “hijacked victimhood” to illustrate how politicians and others in elite positions craft narratives strategically portraying dominant groups as victims of oppression at the hands of marginalized or subaltern groups. In doing so, narratives reliant on hijacked victimhood portray marginalized groups as threats to the security of dominant groups and delegitimize victimhood claims among the marginalized. 

Hronešová and Kreiss consider hijacked victimhood a specific form of strategic victimhood. While strategic victimhood serves as a useful political communication practice for those seeking equity and justice, when hijacked, it can permit “dominant groups and their representatives [to] strategically invert moral relations and subvert empirical understandings of harm to defend, preserve, or expand their power.” Hijacked victimhood is therefore tied to a specific group of potential victims—those who, in a national or other broad sociopolitical context, are in positions of social dominance or power. 

To demonstrate what hijacked victimhood looks like in practice, Hronešová and Kreiss examined speeches from two contemporary political leaders employing populist, nationalist platforms—Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and former U.S. President Donald Trump. Though Orbán and Trump differ in their specific employment of hijacked victimhood, both rely on narratives of hijacked victimhood frequently and in often strikingly similar ways. Orbán and Trump alike portray their white, Christian constituents as put-upon and exploited by a shadowy “elite” and under threat from nonwhite immigrant “Others” who themselves are frequently construed as pawns in the plans of global “elites.” Both leaders also attempt to connect the apparent current victimhood of the dominant groups they claim to represent to supposed legacies of victimization—and both assert the only way to escape these legacies of victimhood is through the protection of Orbán and Trump as saviors, respectively.  

Elite narratives reliant on hijacked victimhood do more than secure those crafting the narratives positions in power: they also “weake[n] and delegitimize[e] claims of actual victims, demoraliz[e] communities of out-groups, and desensitiz[e] majority populations to sources of human suffering.” Understanding when strategic victimhood is hijacked, then, helps us to understand the ways in which strategies that may further equity in justice in some contexts can be used to unjust ends in other arenas.